So, you’re considering investing in a new piece of cookware: a wok or stir fry pan. But you’ve discovered there are several options available. Which material, shape, and size would be the best wok or stir fry pan for you, your cooktop, and your cooking style? Read on!
Woks have been used in China for about two thousand years, and a similarly shaped vessel is typical in India. They are valued for the speed of cooking and the even heat distribution and retention they provide.
A wok might be a new item of cookware for you, and more common in Eastern than Western countries, but it’s a handy item to have in your kitchen. Cooking in a wok is healthy, easy, quick, and therefore economical, and fun. They are also easy to clean if you use them correctly.
This blog looks at which material or construction is best, how woks are made, shapes and handles, and reviews a range of options on the market. Also, we’ll look at factors to keep in mind as you make your selection, the benefits of cooking with a wok, and some cooking tips. So, let’s meet the wok!
Do You Need a Wok?
You don’t need a wok in the sense that no cook should be without one. You can prepare Chinese food without a wok; a lot of people do. A wok is, however, extremely useful and the best type of cookware for stir-fries, deep-frying, braising, sautéing, boiling, and even steaming. If you enjoy any of these dishes or methods of cooking, then you will significantly benefit from owning a wok.
Some cooks use a frying pan instead of a wok. I have not found this nearly as good, for several reasons. Firstly, woks require far less fat or cooking oil. Secondly, woks distribute heat up the sides, so there is a large, evenly hot cooking surface. You can also, thanks to its design, toss food in a wok without it landing all over the cooker and floor.
A sure sign that woks are genuinely useful, and becoming increasingly popular, is that there are accessories (such as a “collar” or ring) that you can buy so you can use woks on various traditional cooktops. Some manufacturers are even producing bespoke cookers with a wok-shaped indented burner!
What is the best material for a wok?
Originally Chinese woks were probably made of pottery. Later they were made of iron, which was in turn replaced by carbon steel. Carbon steel is still an option, but so are other materials.
Carbon steel is considered by a lot of professional and home cooks to be the best material for woks. It has a lot going for it. It heats evenly and fast, is inexpensive, will last a long time, and—after some use—may even acquire an almost nonstick surface.
A word of caution: make sure the wok is at least 14-gauge, or it will be very thin; the sides may bend.
Iron is a more traditional choice, but it comes with pros and cons. On the upside, they retain heat and cook evenly. They also—if seasoned—have strong nonstick qualities, which makes cooking and cleaning easy.
The disadvantages include that they take a while to heat up and cool down, they may crack if the iron is too thin, and woks made of thicker iron are heavy to work with. Also, iron may react with acidic foods, which may affect taste and color. Finally, if it’s not dried properly, cast iron will rust.
I would probably not spend money on a stainless-steel wok. It’s not a great conductor of heat, so it heats slowly and unevenly. They can also be too heavy to work with easily. Finally, food—protein mainly—sticks to stainless steel, which can do the cooking and clean hard.
Nonstick coatings and the kind of cooking woks are meant to do a marriage made in hell. A stir-fry, for example, must be cooked quickly at very high heat. Nonstick coatings can’t handle high heat. They will begin to peel or flake and, if they contain PTFE, may release toxic fumes.
I recommend carbon steel or cast iron.
How are Woks Made?
There are three manufacturing processes:
- Hand-hammered woks: This is a traditional method. The cooking surface has small indentations left by the hammer blows. Surprisingly, these make cooking more straightforward: you can place food around the sides of the wok while you add new ingredients to the center, and it won’t slip down. The downside? It’s almost impossible to get a flat-bottomed, hand-hammered wok. Most cooktops can only accommodate a wok with a flat base.
- Spun woks: These types of woks are produced using a lathe. The process leaves a pattern of concentric circles. This, in turn, makes it easier to cook in them. A further advantage is that these woks are produced in heavy gauge metal and with different shapes and handle configurations.
- Stamped woks: These woks are made using machines. A thin, circular piece of carbon steel is cut out first. This is then machine-pressed into a mold to give it the necessary shape. While these are very inexpensive, they are made from low-grade steel, which does not heat evenly. For this reason, and because they have a 100% smooth interior surface and are rather flimsy, they aren’t great to use.
My overall recommendation would be for a good quality gauge spun wok.
Wok Shapes and Handles
Traditionally, woks are shaped like deep bowls and have round bases. They were designed to fit into circular openings over a hearth. This design is still available, but for most types of cooktop, they aren’t practical.
On our cookers, a round-bottomed wok must be used in conjunction with some fitting, or you must hold it steady all the time. The clincher is that these woks won’t work on electric or gas as the heat source is just wrong for the shape.
To make matters more complicated, you don’t want a wok with a totally flat base either. The reason is that you won’t have an ideal central hot zone, and you can’t toss food in a flat wok without making a mess.
So, what’s optimal? Several reviewers, I included, believe that the best shape is one that has a central flat section that is 4 – 5 inches wide and that has gently sloping sides that widen to 12 – 14 inches. That gives you the right size central high-heat area for searing, and lots of space to move food around.
There are also options when it comes to handles: Cantonese-style or Northern-style. The first style has two small handles, one on either side. The second has a long handle—more like a frying pan—and a small handle opposite in case you need to support it on both sides. You guessed it: you want a Northern-style handle.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Wok
We’re getting closer to making some necessary decisions about your wok selection and purchase. However, there are certainly other factors to consider before you can choose the best wok for you.
Consider the type of range you have
- Electric Stove. A traditional round-bottomed wok won’t work on an electric stove’s flat cooktop. The wok will be unstable, and heat won’t be distributed as it should be. Even if you buy a wok ring to place under the wok, it won’t be a successful cooking experience, and your cooktop may be damaged. The solution would be to buy a flat-bottomed wok and cook over high heat.
- Gas Stove. If you have a gas stove, you’ll have more success with a wok despite domestic gas having a lower heat output level that some other heat sources. You can do a few things to get around this issue. Firstly, use high heat. Secondly, use a small burner and place the wok on the center. Smaller burners are more effective because they keep the central hotspot at the necessary temperature and heat the sides. Larger burners mainly heat the sides.
- Induction Cooktop. Induction cooktops are also flat, so you need a flat-bottomed wok. More crucial still is that the wok must contain metal such as iron or magnetized stainless-steel. Aluminum won’t work on an induction cooktop.
You’ve probably worked out why the shape of the base is important.
- Classic round-bottomed. Although a traditional round-bottom is the choice of professional and many domestic cooks, it is not an option with electric or induction stoves. Don’t use a ring on either stove. This type of wok works well on gas stoves. A ring or collar is an option with a gas cooker as the wok won’t wobble and is kept at a reasonable distance over the flame. Round-bottomed woks are more comfortable to cook in. However, they can reflect heat back, which may damage the cooktop.
- Flat-bottomed. A flat-bottomed wok can be confused with a frying pan, but they aren’t the same. The sides flare out a little more with the wok. Because this type of wok sits flat, they can be used on any type of cooktop, and no heating ring is necessary. This makes them versatile. However, it is easier to burn or overcook food in a flat-bottomed wok as the heat is distributed across the entire base.
There’s a good range of wok sizes available. Which one you select depends on how many mouths you feed. An 8-inch wok is probably the smallest you can get. The usual family-sized wok is 14-inches, but 12-inches might work for you. Woks go all the way up to 79-inches, but these are aimed at restaurants rather than individuals.
Durability and weight
Naturally, we want anything we spend money to be durable. It’s easier to shop for a wok in a store than online because it allows you to feel the weight and thickness.
The metal shouldn’t bend when you press the sides. A work that’s made of a material that’s too thin won’t work well or last. Look for a wok that has sides of the right thickness.
In terms of weight, you want something that you can lift and carry with ease. Keep in mind it will be heavier when it’s full.
Handles and lid
Handles come in two types: a loop on either side or a single long handle. Others have a long handle on one side and a loop handle on the opposite side. We are more accustomed to a long handle, and it makes tossing easier. However, there’s no good or bad choice here. Select the one you will find most comfortable to use.
A lid is not essential and is usually not included when you buy a work. You may be able to buy a separate one. The main advantage of a lid is that you can cover the wok and simmer food and you won’t lose a lot of liquid.
You can get a good quality wok for relatively little money. As with all types of cookware, there is a vast price range. You can buy a wok for under $10 or go all out and get one for more than $200.
I hope that these factors will help to guide your search, but let’s look at specific products now.
The Best Woks and Stir-Fry Pans Reviews
It’s time to get specific and talk about available woks, their features, and what others say about them. While I offer recommendations that will, I hope, help you to narrow things down a little, the final choice is yours.
1. T-fal A80789 Specialty Nonstick Jumbo 14-Inch Wok
This flat-bottomed wok heats up quickly and evenly and reacts to changes in temperature setting fast. This is no doubt down to the construction of the aluminum base. Durability is an issue with any cookware with a nonstick surface as they do wear over time.
However, the surface makes this wok very easy to clean. It’s dishwasher safe, but I’d recommend hand-washing. At 14 inches, it’s a large, family-size wok. The handle is a cool grip. The wok does not come with a lid, which is a pity.
What Customers are Saying:
Several reviewers on Amazon have mentioned that this wok is enormous and larger than expected. Buyers speak positively about the shape and design, specifically the height of the sides and the relatively small base. The ease of cleaning is a big plus, but users suggest hand-washing to protect the nonstick coating.
I suspect that those reporting the damage to the nonstick surface after only a few months didn’t adhere to all the care instructions and recommendations. Also, the manufacturers state that the wok is dishwasher safe. Nonstick cookware doesn’t usually handle this well.
This is an excellent choice for someone who wants an affordable wok and to cook large amounts of food. If you care for the surface correctly, it’s a breeze to clean. However, even if you look after the nonstick surface accurately (don’t use metal utensils or very high heats), this wok is not a long-term investment. You can probably expect about two years of use.
Craft Wok 731W88 Traditional Hand Hammered Carbon Steel 14 Inch Pow Wok
This hand-hammered wok from Craft Wok is made from 15-gauge carbon steel, which means it’s strong and durable. It heats fast and evenly and can be used over very high heats.
The heat is retained well, and the wok responds quickly to any adjustment to temperature. There are a long wooden handle and a loop handle opposite, which makes lifting the wok easy. There’s no lid.
Like cast iron, carbon steel must be seasoned to give it and retain its nonstick qualities. The seasoning process isn’t complicated or time-consuming, and the manufacturer provides instructions. Once a nonstick surface has been achieved, cleaning is effortless.
Because it has a traditional round bottom, this wok is not suitable for electric or induction cooktops.
What Customers are Saying
Many of the reviewers on Amazon talk about the need to season this wok and care for it as you would cast iron. On the upside, they also talk about the ease of seasoning and how much this wok rewards your efforts. The surface is effectively nonstick once seasoning has been done.
This wok is praised for its performance, versatile size, sturdiness, and look. There are indications that you don’t need to place a ring under the wok on a gas stove, although it may be more stable with one. The only con mentioned several times is that, when full, this wok is a little heavy. However, having two handles helps.
It is worth the effort to season and maintain this wok as it makes cleaning it so easy. It also improves the wok’s already excellent performance and will increase its life span. If you have a gas stove and are looking for a traditional wok that is pleasing to look at and awesome to cook on, this is the wok for you.
Lodge P14W3 Pro-Logic Cast Iron 14-inch Wok
This 14-inch, US-made wok is made from pre-seasoned cast iron. Thanks to its construction, it’s exceptionally durable. It takes a little time to heat up, but it heats evenly and retains heat well. The two-loop handles are part of the wok, which makes them durable and oven safe. They do get very hot, even on the cooktop. Thanks to the flat bottom, it can be used on any stovetop.
On the downside, cast iron can only be hand-washed. Also, you will need to season your wok every few months to maintain the surface and nonstick qualities. Cast iron must be hand-washed, dried thoroughly and immediately to prevent rust, and oiled. This wok is easy to clean.
What Customers are Saying:
It’s hard to find negative feedback about this wok. Reviewers love how fast it and evenly it heats up and how long it stays hot. Given cast iron is almost indestructible, and the wok is an excellent quality, it’s a good investment.
The only cons are the weight and lack of lid, but you can purchase a lid for not a lot of money. The caution is that cast iron needs to be cared for. The fact that its pre-seasoned doesn’t mean that you won’t have to season it regularly.
If you want a wok that’s a dream to use and can be handed down to future generations thanks to its excellent durability, this one is for you. This wok can also be used on any cooktop, including induction.
But if you are looking for a wok that you can shake and toss, this is not for you because, at almost 12 pounds, it’s heavy. Also, you need to invest a little time in hand-washing, drying, and oiling your wok after each use. If you don’t want any maintenance, this isn’t for you.
Cooks Standard NC-00233 Stainless Steel Multi-Ply Clad 13-Inch Wok/Stir Fry Pan with Dome Lid
This Chinese-made, 13-inch wok is made from high-grade stainless steel. The base is clad in aluminum, which boosts the speed and evenness of heating and heat retention.
The construction means that this wok should be durable, even with heavy use. It is flat-bottomed with a 5-inch base, which is the right size area for searing.
I like the riveted stainless-steel handles—a long one and a loop handle—as they are easy to grip, reliable, and don’t get too hot. The wok also comes with a well-designed domed lid, which is ideal for steaming. It’s also versatile as it can be used on any cooktop. This wok is dishwasher safe, but it’s easy to hand-wash too. However, at almost 4 ½pounds, it’s a little heavy.
What Customers are Saying:
Reviewers praise the way this wok performs, its solid construction, gently rounded base, size, cool grip handles, dome lid, and easy cleaning. As is usually the case with stainless-steel cookware, you don’t need to season it, but several buyers report that it will improve the nonstick nature of the cooking surface.
A grumble about this wok is its weight. This is due to its solid metal construction. Weight is a tradeoff for sturdiness and durability.
If you would prefer to avoid cast iron and carbon steel for some reason, this stainless-steel wok is a perfect option. Cooking in this alloy can present challenges, and many cooks find stainless-steel a problem, especially until it has built up a more nonstick cooking surface.
I enjoyed testing this wok. It’s responsive, performs well, is durable, is an ideal size, and is easy to clean. This wok is expensive, but I think it’s worth the money.
Lodge Cast Iron Mini 9-Inch Wok w/ Loop Handles
At 9-inches, this is a small wok and a great size for a single person or couple. It’s made from a single piece of cast iron, which makes it sturdy and durable. It has two loop handles, so it’s easy to lift, but the handles get very hot.
This US-made wok responds well to changes in temperature, and it heats fast and evenly. It’s lovely to cook with and easy to clean too. It retains heat well, and, with its flat base, it can be used on all cooktops.
I also like that it’s pre-seasoned. This doesn’t mean you never have to season your wok, but it’s ready for use straight away. It doesn’t come with a lid.
What Customers are Saying:
Reviews of this mini wok are very positive. Buyers praise its durability, design, stability, responsiveness, heat retention, ease of cleaning, its overall quality, and that it is pre-seasoned.
Oddly, the main criticism is the size. This is, after all, a mini wok, so perhaps this problem is one of selection.
This is an excellent buy if you want a small wok. It’s very well constructed, great to cook with, easy to clean, and will last many, many years if you take care of it. The quality and durability more than justify the price.
However, if cast iron is too much like hard work for you, instead look for a carbon steel wok.
Made-In Blue Carbon Steel Wok
The wok from Made-In is manufactured from blue carbon steel. “Blue” is not a color but refers to the heat treatment used to prevent corrosion and rust. This 12-inch, the flat-bottom wok will work on all cooktops, including induction.
Unlike traditional nonstick coatings, this wok can take very high heat. It heats quickly and evenly, retains heat, and food cooks fast.
This wok is easy to use and to clean. Because carbon steel is less porous than cast iron, it seasons and becomes nonstick much sooner. Steel is also lighter to work with and lift than iron, but it’s a very durable material. There are a single long handle and no lid.
What Customers are Saying:
The reviews for this wok are very positive overall. Buyers report that it heats fast and is great to use so that cooking and cleaning are easy. Some reviewers mention that the wok changes color over time but that this is a normal part of the seasoning process of this blue steel.
The negatives are that it’s heavy and has only one handle, which makes carrying it more difficult.
If you are keen to purchase a carbon steel wok rather than cast iron, this one from Made In is a good purchase. It’s a useful size and, although some buyers found it a little heavy, most cooks will prefer it to the heaviness of iron.
This wok offers a responsive, fast way to cook, and is easy to clean and care for. It is basic in design, but it’s a great starter wok that should last many years.
ExcelSteel 13″ Super Lightweight Cast Iron Chinese Wok
This flat-bottom, pre-seasoned 13-inch cast iron wok has a lot to offer. At a little under 5 pounds, this wok is not light. However, it is around 50% lighter than other cast iron woks of the same size. While it weighs less, it still offers the many advantages of cast iron, including excellent strength and durability.
It heats up fast and evenly and retains heat, which makes it ideal for many types of cooking, including oven cooking. The downside is that iron does not respond to changes in temperature settings as fast as other materials. The long handle and loop handles are riveted on and made of stainless steel. There is no lid.
What Customers are Saying:
Reviewers comment favorably on how evenly this wok heats up and retains heat and that it works on all cookers, including induction. The verdict about weight is split with some saying that this wok is light for cast iron and others still saying it’s heavy. Consumers also like the performance, size, durability, construction, and that it cleans well.
I found it surprising that some consumers complain that it is not seasoned when it is, in fact, pre-seasoned. Two Amazon reviewers report black residue on the surface; this may be due to incorrect or incomplete cleaning.
If you want a durable, high-performance cast iron wok that is lighter than others, look no further. This wok performs well and will last a long time if correctly cared for.
However, if you don’t want the cleaning and care that is involved with any cast iron cookware, then I suggest you instead consider a wok that is made of carbon steel or stainless steel.
Kasian House Cast Iron Wok
The Kasian House flat-bottom wok is 12-inches in diameter and made from a single piece of highly durable cast iron. Like other cast iron cookware, this wok heats evenly and retains heat. It requires regular seasoning but is easy to clean from the outset and can be used on all types of cooktops.
I found this wok a little slow to respond to adjustments in heat. To be fair, this is true of cast iron. Besides, you want to cook a stir fry, for example, very fast.
In addition to the performance, I enjoyed the fact that the wok arrives pre-seasoned, its two large loop handles, and the unique lid. Unlike any other lid, I have encountered this one is made of cedarwood and is flat rather than domed. The lid is striking-looking, but it can’t be close to flames.
What Customers are Saying:
Several reviewers mention the wok’s high performance, ideal size, and that its weight makes it very stable on the cooktop. Although the pre-seasoning is seen as a pro, it doesn’t mean you won’t have to season it regularly.
I did encounter one review that complained the lid delaminated after a month. One doesn’t know if this was perhaps due to excessive moisture or the wood drying too fast. Another buyer reported a problem with rust. This should only be an issue if cast iron is not correctly washed, thoroughly and immediately dried, and oiled.
If you are looking for a wok that looks totally unlike any other on the market, this one with its wooden lid is for you.
The performance, size, and durability of the wok may also justify the price tag, which is a little high.
What are the Benefits of Cooking with a Wok?
There are several significant benefits associated with cooking with a wok. This is especially true when comparing a wok and a frying pan. The primary benefits are:
- Health: We’re all more aware of and concerned about issues affecting our health. This extends to what we cook, how we prepare, and what cookware we use. Woks score because they require less oil, food cooks fast, which means less oil is absorbed, and—thanks to the design—food has a chance to drain before we serve it.
- Performance: Woks allow us to cook foods that require different lengths of cooking time together. This is thanks to the hot base area and the fact that food can be moved up the sides when cooked where it remains hot and drains. Undercooking and overcooking can be avoided.
- Speed: Because woks (other than those with a nonstick coating) can be placed over very high heats, they allow you to prepare delicious, nutritious food very quickly. That’s ideal for people who love food and cooking but don’t have a lot of time for it.
- Volume: A good size wok holds a great deal more food than a frying pan can. You also have space in a wok to move food around or toss it without getting food on the cooktop,
- Versatility: A wok allows you to do so much more than stir fry. You can use a wok to boil or steam cooking, braising, or making stews.
- Less clean-up: Because wok cooking offers a one-pot facility, you can prepare a meal and only have one item of cookware that needs to be cleaned.
Those are six good reasons to invest in a wok that will perform well and last for many years. If you take care of your wok, it’ll reward you.
Wok Cooking Tips
There are perhaps almost as many wok cooking tips as there are people who love to use them. Here is mine:
- Prepare your ingredients before you put your wok onto the heat
- Use oil with a high smoke point such as canola
- Place the oil in a wok and wait until it begins to smoke
- Pour that oil out and use fresh oil for cooking
- Place the aromatic and ingredients such as spices, ginger, garlic, and chili in first before the fresh oil gets too hot
- Add the other ingredients to the work when it’s very hot
- Keep the ingredients on the move, so they cook fast and don’t burn or stick
- Use suitable utensils: a Chinese ladle, wok spatula, slotted spoon, and—for when you are deep frying—a scoop. A bamboo brush can be used to scrub a wok that’s still hot if you are cooking multiple dishes in it.
- Toss the food in the wok by pushing the wok away and then flipping the food towards you
- Don’t overfill your wok as there will be too much liquid and you’ll lose that all-important searing heat
- If you have foods that cook at different speeds, sear the protein and then move it up the sides or remove it from the wok when it’s cooked. Cook the vegetables next and add the protein to reheat when the rest of the dish is almost ready.
- Clean your wok according to the manufacturer’s instructions and season it regularly.
The two stages of oil use mentioned above help to give your wok a more nonstick surface that is easy to clean and that food won’t stick to.
Finally, be adventurous and have fun!
How does a wok cook differently?
There are several differences between cooking with a wok and with other cookware such as a frying pan.
Firstly, woks can be used on very high heats. Also, they have a central hot spot on the base that allows you to sear foods, especially proteins. Finally, the sloping sides will enable you to move food up and away from the hot spot to where they can either cook slowly or stay warm to all the cooking is complete.
Is wok cooking healthy?
Yes. When you cook with a wok, you use less oil than you would in a frying pan. Also, they prepare food fast, which means that less oil is absorbed, and if you use the sides, the food has a chance to drain before you serve it.
How do you clean a dirty wok?
The answer to this question depends on what your wok is made of. However, hand-washing is strongly recommended, regardless.
Both carbon steel and cast iron can be washed when they are still warm. Start by giving it a rinse with warm water. Don’t use soap as this will remove the seasoning. Use a sponge to clean off the debris. If it is stubborn, soak your wok for five or ten minutes.
After washing, rinse it thoroughly with warm water. It’s crucial to dry it thoroughly; doing so over medium heat on your cooktop is effective. This will help to prevent rust on cast iron. Finally, rub a tablespoon of vegetable oil over the surface.
Stainless-steel woks can handle much tougher cleaning, but don’t wash them when they are still hot; the base may warp. You can use dish soap and a sponge but avoid anything too abrasive. Stainless-steel can soak longer than other materials and doesn’t need to be oiled after each use.
How to season a wok?
Seasoning cookware, including woks, is not as complicated as many folks think. All you need to do is put a little cooking oil (not olive oil as that causes a sticky layer to build up) into the cookware, heat it slowly, and then gently wipe or rinse off the excess. This smooths over the microscopic ridges and pores in the metal. If the manufacturer of your wok gives specific instructions, it’s best to follow them.
How can I determine if a wok is induction-ready?
There is an easy assessment you can do. Take a magnet and hold it to the base. If it sticks firmly, you can be confident it’s induction ready. If there’s a weak attraction, the wok’s performance will be poor. If the magnet isn’t attracted at all, it won’t work on an induction cooktop. Secondly, the wok’s bottom must be flat and smooth.
Conclusion: Which Wok is Right for You?
A wok will be an excellent addition to your kitchen, thanks to its versatility. This type of cookware offers a range of benefits, and these days we are spoiled for choice.
The Lodge P14W3 Pro-Logic Cast Iron Wok gets my vote as #1 thanks to its performance, durability, and ease of cleaning. It’s cast iron, but the bit of time to care for it is well worth it.
If you want a small, one-person wok, then you can’t go wrong with the Lodge Mini Wok. It has all the qualities of the larger Lodge wok in terms of quality and performance.
If you are about to buy your first wok, or maybe you are nervous about cast iron, my recommendation would be the Made-In Blue Carbon Steel wok. While not quite as durable as cast iron, this wok will still last a long time. And it’s easy to use and clean.
Your wok is waiting for you. Get out there are find it!